Among the companies we found doing it: Amazon,
Verizon, UPS and Facebook
itself. “It’s blatantly unlawful,” said one employment law expert.
By Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Noam
New York Times and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica
This story was co-published with The New York Times.
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) -- A few weeks ago, Verizon
placed an ad on
Facebook to recruit applicants for a unit focused on financial planning
analysis. The ad showed a smiling, millennial-aged woman seated at a
and promised that new hires could look forward to a rewarding career in
they would be “more than just a number.”
Some relevant numbers were not immediately evident. The
promotion was set to
run on the Facebook feeds of users 25 to 36 years old who lived in the
capital, or had recently visited there, and had demonstrated an
finance. For a vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who
Facebook every day, the ad did not exist.
is among dozens of the nation's leading employers — including Amazon,
itself — that placed recruitment ads limited to particular age groups,
investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times has found.
The ability of advertisers to deliver their message to the
most likely to respond is the cornerstone of Facebook’s business model.
using the system to expose job opportunities only to certain age groups
raised concerns about fairness to older workers.
Several experts questioned whether the practice is in keeping
federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits
against people 40 or older in hiring or employment. Many jurisdictions
a crime to “aid” or “abet” age discrimination, a provision that could
companies like Facebook that distribute job ads.
“It’s blatantly unlawful,” said Debra Katz, a Washington
who represents victims of discrimination.
the practice. “Used responsibly, age-based targeting for
purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps
recruit and people of all ages find work,” said Rob Goldman, a Facebook
The revelations come at a time when the unregulated power of
companies is under increased scrutiny, and Congress is weighing whether
limit the immunity that it granted to tech companies in 1996 for
content on their platforms.
Facebook has argued in court filings that the law, the
Decency Act, makes it immune from liability for discriminatory ads.
Although Facebook is a relatively new entrant into the
recruiting arena, it
is rapidly gaining popularity with employers. Earlier this year, the
network launched a section
of its site devoted to job ads. Facebook allows advertisers
to select their
audience, and then Facebook finds the chosen users with the extensive
collects about its members.
The use of age targets emerged in a review of data originally
ProPublica readers for a project
about political ad placement on Facebook. Many of the ads
disclosure by Facebook about why the user is seeing the ad, which can
anything from their age to their affinity for folk music.
The precision of Facebook’s ad delivery has helped it dominate
once in the hands of print and broadcast outlets. The system, called
microtargeting, allows advertisers to reach essentially whomever they
including the people their analysis suggests are the most plausible
consumers, lowering the costs and vastly increasing efficiency.
Targeted Facebook ads were an important tool in Russia’s
influence the 2016 election. The social media giant has acknowledged
million people saw Russia-linked content, some of which was
particular demographic groups and regions. Facebook has also come under
criticism for the disclosure that it accepted ads aimed at “Jew-haters”
as well as housing
ads that discriminated by race, gender, disability and other
Other tech companies also offer employers opportunities to
age. ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded
older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved. Google said it
prevent advertisers from displaying ads based on the user’s age. After
contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its system to prevent such
in employment ads.
The practice has begun to attract legal challenges. On
class-action complaint alleging age discrimination was filed
in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of the
of America and its members — as well as all Facebook users 40 or older
have been denied the chance to learn about job openings. The
lawyers said the complaint was based on ads for dozens of companies
had discovered on Facebook.
The database of Facebook ads collected by ProPublica shows how
precisely employers recruit by age. In a search for “part-time package
handlers,” United Parcel Service ran an ad aimed at people 18 to 24. State
Farm pitched its hiring promotion to those 19 to 35.
Some companies, including Target, State Farm and UPS, defended
targeting as a part of a broader recruitment strategy that reached
of all ages. The group of companies making this case included Facebook
which ran career ads on its own platform, many aimed at people 25 to
completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are
said Goldman of Facebook.
After being contacted by ProPublica and the Times, other
including Amazon, Northwestern
Mutual and the New
York City Department of Education, said they had changed or
their recruiting strategies.
“We recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and
discovered some had
targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any
candidate over the age of 18,” said Nina Lindsey, a spokeswoman for
which targeted some ads for workers at its distribution centers between
ages of 18 and 50. “We have corrected those ads.”
Verizon did not respond to requests for comment.
Several companies argued that targeted recruiting on Facebook
to advertising opportunities in publications like the AARP magazine or
Vogue, which are aimed at particular age groups. But this obscures an
distinction. Anyone can buy Teen Vogue and see an ad. Online, however,
outside the targeted age groups can be excluded in ways they will never
“What happens with Facebook is you don’t know what you don’t
David Lopez, a former general counsel for the Equal Employment
Commission who is one of the lawyers at the firm Outten &
the age-discrimination case on behalf of the communication workers
‘They Know I’m Dead’
Age discrimination on digital platforms is something that many
suspect is happening to them, but that is often difficult to prove.
Mark Edelstein, a fitfully employed social-media marketing
strategist who is
58 and legally blind, doesn’t pretend to know what he doesn’t know, but
Edelstein, who lives in St. Louis, says he never had serious
a job until he turned 50. “Once you reach your 50s, you may as well be
he said. “I’ve gone into interviews, with my head of gray hair and my
hairline, and they know I’m dead.”
Edelstein spends most of his days scouring sites like LinkedIn
and pitching hiring managers with personalized appeals. When he
through his Facebook ads on a Wednesday in December, he saw a variety
reflecting his interest in social media marketing: ads for the
(“15 free infographic
templates!”) and TripIt, which he used to book a trip to visit his
What he didn’t see was a single ad for a job in his
one identified by ProPublica that was being shown to younger users: a
for a social
media director job at HubSpot. The company asked that the ad
be shown to
people aged 27 to 40 who live or were recently living in the United
“Hypothetically, had I seen a job for a social media director
even if it involved relocation, I ABSOLUTELY would have applied for
Edelstein said by email when told about the ad.
A HubSpot spokeswoman, Ellie Botelho, said that the job was
posted on many
sites, including LinkedIn, The Ladders and Built in Boston, and was
anyone meeting the qualifications regardless of age or any other
She added that “the use of the targeted age-range selection on
ad was frankly a mistake on our part given our lack of experience using
platform for job postings and not a feature we will use again.”
For his part, Edelstein says he understands why marketers
wouldn’t want to
target ads at him: “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. Why would they want a
58-year-old white guy who’s disabled?”
Looking for ’Younger Blood’
Although LinkedIn is the leading online recruitment platform,
according to an
annual survey by SourceCon, an industry website. Facebook is
increasing in popularity for employers.
One reason is that Facebook’s sheer size — two billion monthly
versus LinkedIn’s 530 million total members — gives recruiters access
of workers they can’t find elsewhere.
Consider nurses, whom hospitals are desperate to hire.
“They’re less likely
to use LinkedIn,” said Josh Rock, a recruiter at a large hospital
Minnesota who has expertise in digital media. “Nurses are predominantly
there’s a larger volume of Facebook users. That’s what they use.”
There are also millions of hourly workers who have never
and may not even have a résumé, but who check Facebook obsessively.
Deb Andrychuk, chief executive of the Arland Group, which
place recruitment ads, said clients sometimes asked her firm to target
age, saying they needed “to start bringing younger blood” into their
organizations. “It’s not necessarily that we wouldn’t take someone
clients say, according to Andrychuk, “but if you could bring in a
of applicants, it would definitely work out better.”
Andrychuk said that “we coach clients to be open and not
that after being contacted by The Times, her team updated all their ads
ensure they didn’t exclude any age groups.
But some companies contend that there are permissible reasons
audiences by age, as with an ad for entry-level analyst positions at
Sachs that was distributed to people 18 to 64. A Goldman Sachs
Andrew Williams, said showing it to people above that age range would
wasted money: roughly 25 percent of those who typically click on the
untargeted ads are 65 or older, but people that age almost never apply
“We welcome and actively recruit applicants of all ages,”
“For some of our social-media ads, we look to get the content to the
most likely to be interested, but do not exclude anyone from our
Pauline Kim, a professor of employment law at Washington
University in St.
Louis, said the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, unlike the
anti-discrimination statute that covers race and gender, allows an
take into account “reasonable factors” that may be highly correlated
protected characteristic, such as cost, as long as they don’t rely on
The Question of Liability
In various ways, Facebook and LinkedIn have acknowledged at
least a modest
obligation to police their ad platforms against abuse.
Earlier this year, Facebook said it would require advertisers
“self-certify” that their housing, employment and credit ads were
with anti-discrimination laws, but that it would not block marketers
purchasing age-restricted ads.
Still, Facebook didn’t promise to monitor those certifications
And Facebook said the self-certification system, announced in February,
still being rolled out to all advertisers.
LinkedIn, in response to inquiries by ProPublica, added a
step that prevents employers from using age ranges once they confirm
are placing an employment ad.
With these efforts evolving, legal experts say it is unclear
liability the tech platforms could have. Some civil rights laws, like
Housing Act, explicitly require publishers to assume liability for
But the Age Discrimination in Employment Act assigns liability
employers or employment agencies, like recruiters and advertising firms.
The lawsuit filed against Facebook on behalf of the
argues that the company essentially plays the role of an employment
collecting and providing data that helps employers locate candidates,
effectively coordinating with the employer to develop the advertising
strategies, informing employers about the performance of the ads, and
Regardless of whether courts accept that argument, the tech
also face liability under certain state or local anti-discrimination
For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act makes it
“aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce the doing” of discriminatory acts
proscribed by the statute.
“They may have an obligation there not to aid and abet an ad
discrimination,” said Cliff Palefsky, an employment lawyer based in San
The question may hinge on Section 230 of the federal
Act, which protects internet companies from liability for third-party
Tech companies have successfully invoked this law to avoid
offensive or criminal content — including sex
porn and calls
for violence against Jews. Facebook is currently
arguing in federal
court that Section 230 immunizes it against liability for ad placement
blocks members of certain racial and ethnic groups from seeing the ads.
“Advertisers, not Facebook, are responsible for both the
content of their
ads and what targeting criteria to use, if any,” Facebook argued in its
to dismiss allegations that its ads violated a host of civil
The case does not allege age discrimination.
Eric Goldman, professor and co-director of the High Tech Law
the Santa Clara University School of Law, who has written extensively
Section 230, says it is hard to predict how courts would treat
age-targeting of employment ads.
Goldman said the law covered the content of ads, and that
courts have made
clear that Facebook would not be liable for an advertisement in which
employer wrote, say, “no one over 55 need apply.” But it is not clear
courts would treat Facebook’s offering of age-targeted customization.
According to a federal appellate court decision in a fair-housing
a platform can be considered to have helped “develop unlawful content”
users play a role in generating, which would negate the immunity.
“Depending on how the targeting is happening, you can make
different sorts of arguments about whether or not Google or Facebook or
LinkedIn is contributing to the development” of the ad, said Deirdre K.
Mulligan, a faculty director of the Berkeley Center for Law and
Jeff Larson and Madeleine Varner contributed research.
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originally ran at ProPublica and is reprinted here with permission.
is a non-profit news agency that produces investigative journalism in
ProPublica was a recipient of the
Pulitzer Prize for public service, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for
reporting, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and a 2010
Prize for investigative reporting.
the above report is the product of ProPublica's reporting and does not
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STORY TAGS: Age discrimination, older workers, Facebook ads